Redistricting law passes granting courts greater discretion

DENVER– A bill that will remove regulations imposed on the state Supreme Court when asked to determine legislative districts, passed this final week of the legislative session.

Legislative districts are redrawn by the legislature every ten years to reflect demographic changes. The process is characterized by partisan skirmishes because the party in power can recast boundaries to create safe districts for members. Indeed lawmakers sometimes have to involve the courts to sort out the districts.

The entire issue stems from a state district court’s 2002 decision to draw its own redistricting map after the legislature failed to agree on a plan. When Republicans gained control of the state government later that year, they drew a new map and enacted the limits.

“By striking this language, we essentially put things back to how it’s always been done,” said state House Majority Leader Paul Weissman, who sponsored the bill with state Senate Majority Leader John Morse. Morse said the bill removes regulations put in place in 2003 that he says unfairly limit justices in their determination of redistricting lines.

The new bill would allow courts to consider factors previously termed “non-neutral” — factors such as political party registration and a party’s election performance in a district. The bill also removes a requirement that courts weigh a set of six factors according to a specific hierarchy. Courts will now be able to give as much weight to a districting plan’s ability to, say, preserve city and county boundaries as it does to a plan’s compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Morse said he feels the court should be able to consider such factors as the number of political party members in districts in order to make them competitive but said the current law, which forces the court to maintain cities such as Denver as one district, does not fairly disperse votes.

“The effect was to keep Denver’s Democrats contained in one county.” Those voters could just as likely be broken up into other areas, he said.

Creating increased politically competitive districts would spur elected officials to feel more accountable to the people. Morse added that having an unpredictable court decision hanging over the heads of legislators should “incentivize them to figure this out in the legislature, as we are required by the Constitution to do. “

Seante Minority Leader Josh Penry said “a vote for this bill is a vote to give the General Assembly carte blanche ability to split up communities of interest… I think it is a show of bad faith and perhaps showing an early hand of the majority party to punt redistricting to a supreme court that is the most partisan in the land.”

After passage of the bill Wednesday, Penry said the main concern is to try to keep rural Colorado districts intact under the communities of interest provision.

“Here is the irony,” Penry said. “It is the same kind of thing that the Republicans tried to do during the last redistricting…. It is a power grab to perpetuate the majorities. Friends, it didn’t work out very well for us. It won’t work out very well for you either.”

Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, called the bill a political donnybrook and said it should be called the “Whatever Bill” because it gives the Supreme Court no “guardrails” in its decision making process.

Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, disagreed. “This bill is the furthest thing from hardball politics I can possibly think of,” she said. She called the bill model of text book redistricting rules, which maintain there should not be a priority of factors applied to districting.

She said the 2003 Republican sponsored rules and what make up Colorado’s current law is the opposite.

The bill passed the Senate on a party line vote. It will become law Aug. 11 unless a referendum on the rules changes goes on the November ballot.

Additional reporting by Jimm Phillips.

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